Monday, September 24, 2018
Books

Review: Julia Glass' 'A House Among the Trees' has many branches

Is it possible for an author to be too generous to her characters?

That question arises during the course of Julia Glass' latest novel, A House Among the Trees, in which a broad cross-sampling of artists, eccentrics and strivers all come knocking at our door, demanding our attention. At their center lies Mort Lear, a revered children's book author and illustrator, "the King of Kid Lit," who has been living in prosperous seclusion on 7 acres of prime Connecticut real estate. (His name evokes both Shakespeare's king and the great artist and nonsense poet Edward Lear, but his sexuality and sensibility suggest Maurice Sendak.)

Over the past three decades, Mort had been trapped somewhere "between solitude and celebrity," and, thanks to his recent and untimely death, he has left behind a big mess of mysteries and broken promises — and three people gyring in his wake: the spinsterish caretaker charged with keeping Mort's life in order, the hyperstressed museum curator with designs on his artistic corpus and the handsome Oscar-winning British actor who will (implausibly) be playing Mort in an upcoming motion picture.

With each of these characters, Glass does just what a generous author should do. She unfolds backstories; she demarcates key traumas; she recapitulates thoughts. For company, she also throws in ancillary fauna: a brutish chauffeur and a legendary movie director and a legendary actor and a forgotten actor and a dying mum and a dead mom and a stage mom and a creepy landscaper and Mort's long-dead lover and Mort's original model and an accountant and a blackmailer. It should all be confusing, but because Glass is a pro, the trains keep running, and we wait to see what happens when her three co-protagonists all converge on Mort's estate with their private agendas.

If you're expecting fireworks or farce — something on the order of Smiles of a Summer Night or even Wonder Boys — this isn't that book. By now, a shrewd reader has already grasped that the biopic of Mort will be made, regardless of anything that happens, that the actor will return to his fabulously successful career, that the curator will likely keep her job, and that the caretaker will have more than enough money.

In the absence of narrative tension, then, we are left with this thresh of rival perspectives, all generously delivered in the same third-person omniscient. And we are reminded that, like St. Peter, we sit at the pearly gates of our own tastes, deciding whom we want to spend our time with.

This was a danger Glass flirted with even in her charming and justly praised Three Junes, which won a National Book Award for fiction in 2002. And the danger is even greater in A House Among the Trees, which gives up a lot of space to that caretaker, although she never shakes off the drabness of her conception. As for the actor, he seems to drag Glass out of her comfort zone — New York geography, the covalent bonds of gay men and straight women — into some nebulous showbiz world where actors subsist in a "cyclone of parties and awards and talk shows and photo shoots and more parties" while feeling "far from home, far from certain, far from any sort of lasting love."

And now I zig in the other direction to declare my sincere fondness for Meredith, the 39-year-old curator whose marriage has been "shipwrecked on the shoals of infertility angst," and who is "careening perilously toward a size twelve, wondering if it's time to stop coloring her hair and whether, if she does, she'll luck into that stately shade of chrome, the one you picture whenever you hear someone — though is it ever a woman? — described as an éminence grise."

Meredith worries more than once about being an urban cliche, but even if she is, and even if she belongs in some other, more rigorous novel, hers is a thread I wouldn't mind following out to its full length.

Comments
Review: Robert Olen Butler’s Paris in the Dark packed with action

Review: Robert Olen Butler’s Paris in the Dark packed with action

On a fall night in 1915, an American reporter sips Chartreuse at a sidewalk table as German Zeppelins patrol the perimeter of Paris. As he plans how to finagle his way to the front lines of World War I, a bomb explodes at another cafe nearby, and he ...
Published: 09/21/18
Novelist, USF professor Karen Brown drawn by the voices of stories of loss

Novelist, USF professor Karen Brown drawn by the voices of stories of loss

Karen BrownBrown teaches creative writing at the University of South Florida and is the author of several books, including The Longing of Wayward Girls and the short story collection Pins and Needles. On Nov. 17, Brown will be a featured author at th...
Published: 09/21/18
Joyce Maynard looks back at life with Salinger at the #MeToo moment

Joyce Maynard looks back at life with Salinger at the #MeToo moment

In 1972, Joyce Maynard wrote an essay for the New York Times Magazine called "An 18-Year-Old Looks Back at Life." It won her instant fame — and a letter from J.D. Salinger, renowned author of Catcher in the Rye and other fiction, who was then 53 year...
Published: 09/14/18
Review: Ben Montgomery’s ‘Man Who Walked Backward’ lets readers step into history

Review: Ben Montgomery’s ‘Man Who Walked Backward’ lets readers step into history

Did Plennie Wingo make any progress going backward?That’s the question at the heart of The Man Who Walked Backward: An American Dreamer’s Search for Meaning in the Great Depression, an engaging new book by former Tampa Bay Times staff writer Ben Mont...
Published: 09/13/18
Updated: 09/14/18
It’s no mystery why fans, authors gathered for Bouchercon in St. Petersburg

It’s no mystery why fans, authors gathered for Bouchercon in St. Petersburg

ST. PETERSBURGLast Wednesday through Sunday, the Vinoy Renaissance Hotel teemed with people who write and read about bloody murder. It was a remarkably friendly and cheerful crowd. Detroit novelist Stephen Mack Jones had an explanation: "Writing abou...
Published: 09/11/18
Times Festival of Reading 2018: Get the full lineup of authors here

Times Festival of Reading 2018: Get the full lineup of authors here

A novelist whose book won raves from Oprah and Obama, the scholar who brought Zora Neale Hurston’s long-lost interview with a former slave to print, two Pulitzer Prize-winning nonfiction writers, a bestselling satirical novelist, a beloved memoirist ...
Updated one month ago
Welcome to Florida, a land of mysteries – including why mullet jump

Welcome to Florida, a land of mysteries – including why mullet jump

Florida is a land full of mysteries. Why do we call it "the Sunshine State" when every major city gets more rain than Seattle? Why, after a hurricane destroys our homes with flooding and storm surge, do we rebuild in exactly the same spot? Perhaps th...
Updated one month ago
Review: Gary Shteyngart’s ‘Lake Success’ a comic tale of a 1-percenter

Review: Gary Shteyngart’s ‘Lake Success’ a comic tale of a 1-percenter

One night young lawyer Seema Cohen went to a Vogue party hosted by billionaire Michael Bloomberg and there met the man who would become her husband. At first, she wasn’t sure she liked the glad-handing middle-aged hedge fund guy who was clearly...
Updated one month ago
Retired journalist David Lawrence Jr.’s reading still centers on news

Retired journalist David Lawrence Jr.’s reading still centers on news

David Lawrence Jr.In 1999, at the age of 56, Lawrence decided to retire from his post as publisher of the Miami Herald after decades in journalism. Since then, he has focused on a life’s passion, advocating for children by leading the Children’s Move...
Updated one month ago